Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Arrowhead by Giles Watson



Stamped with characters of beauty, their veins
Like waters at a confluence of streams, arrowheads
Point heavenwards. The traceries of their leaves
Are essays in divine proportion: three lobes
Of an arch, mirrored in the initials
Of her half-forgotten, inverted Book of Hours,
In the stained glass of her chapel, in the niche
Of the piscina where her fingers dipped
Before the benediction, and mirrored also
In the shadow of one leaf, which makes
A window to the riverbed. I too wish to dip
My outstretched hand in that dark and holy water.
Source material: The poem refers to Charles Collins’ painting, Convent Thoughts, currently housed in the Ashmolean museum. John Ruskin praised the leaves of Alisma plantago-aquatica, the Water Plantain, as models of “divine proportion” which endorsed his theory of gothic architecture, claiming in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) that they are “shapes which in the everyday world are familiar to the eyes of men, [and with which] God has stamped those characters of beauty which He has made it man’s nature to love”. In a review in which he defended the aesthetic merits of Collins’ painting, Ruskin maintained: “I happen to have a special acquaintance with the water plant Alisma Plantago ... and as I never saw it so thoroughly or so well drawn, I must take leave to remonstrate with you, when you say sweepingly that these men [Pre-Raphaelite painters] 'sacrifice truth as well as feeling to eccentricity.' For as a mere botanical study of the Water Lily andAlisma, as well as of the common lily and several other garden flowers, this picture would be invaluable to me, and I heartily wish it were mine.” Unfortunately for Ruskin, he had made a grave error of identification, for there is no Alisma in Collins’ painting, but there are Arrowhead plants (Sagittaria sagittifolia), in the bottom left hand corner of the painting. For a more detailed discussion of Ruskin’s mistake, see Elizabeth Deas, "The Missing Alisma: Ruskin's Botanical Error", Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies (Fall 2001): 4-13, and for a reasonably good reproduction of the painting, see:commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charles_Allston_Collins_-...
I am grateful to Jeannie for her companionship on our several visits to see this painting, and for her assistance in my research. Poem by Giles Watson, 2009.

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